Holy week confronts us with the reality that some people have the power over life and death. Like Pontius Pilate they can be swayed one way or another. To take a life or to save a life? In the medical world, this is experienced most controversially in abortion. In some countries doctors are offered guidelines within which they are free to take the life of an unborn child. They use their professional judgement and ethical perspective to make this choice.
In another classic example, the state can exercise the power of execution. The life of a killer can be cut short as punishment for the crime. In Switzerland, there are two agencies that provide euthanasia services. The tools of self-destruction are provided to those whose will to live has expired. Though less directly involved, the choice is still negotiated with the agency. It's judgments influence who lives and who dies.
Beyond these very controversial examples are those regular decisions taken by doctors the world over. Do they let life slip away or do they intervene more aggressively to hold back the tide of death? Their professional and ethical training is designed to help them interpret the circumstances of an individual patient and to guide their actions for treatment or to assist a comfortable end.
This power over life and death remains in human hands, uncomfortable though that is. In many ways we now have more options and therefore more complex choices. Pilate recognised the political dangers of the dilemma before him and hoped for an alternative. Ultimately he was forced to choose: Jesus was hung on a cross. An eternal and divine injustice was committed. Choices cannot always be avoided.
Not many of us have to face dilemmas such as these, and even if we do, we have a natural instinct to save life rather than extinguish it. Yet death becomes us all. We see how profoundly people suffer in the fight to hold on to life until the bitter end and we realise that the power we have to intervene is not easily wielded. These choices haunt us even as they give many the hope of rescue.
There are no easy answers to these common dilemmas. The passion of Christ holds us this week in the grip of death. It is a story and a context we should embrace and from which we can draw spiritual strength for the times and choices that lie ahead.